Stanford professor uses design thinking to stay productive

Stanford professor uses design thinking to stay productive

By Sarah A. Soule4 minute Read

When productive people share their secrets, they often talk about to-do lists—which I swear by. I also stress the importance of self-care, exercise, and spending some time outdoors every day. I do my best to eat well, and I try not to watch too much TV. But that’s all productivity advice you’ve probably heard before.

As professionals, when we reach a particular stage in our careers, we need a new approach to productivity because we’re trying to balance even more. We’re transitioning into management and leadership roles. Regardless of the industry, we’re contributing to our profession, mentoring others, and managing more extensive programs and projects. In these situations, the productivity hacks that worked in the past may no longer work as well.

When I was invited to serve in the dean’s office at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, I knew I needed to be intentional about how I maximized my productivity. It’s a role that requires me to wear many hats: administrator, professor, and researcher, to name a few. I ended up adopting two design-thinking methodologies to help me prioritize and bring clarity to my day: the concept of stacking functions and the practice of reframing challenges as opportunities. Here’s how I implemented them in my day-to-day.

Method one: Stacking tasks for maximum efficiency

To maximize my productivity, I look to the concept of stacking functions. I learned this theory years ago when studying permaculture design. In that field, every element performs more than one purpose. Designers often stack functions in agriculture or landscape design to achieve the most value from each part of the design. The idea is to have each element perform as many separate functions as possible.

Say you’re designing a garden. When you think about the functions of a tree, it’s to add beauty to the landscape. But a tree can also produce food, create shade on windows, serve as a home for birds and bees, and generate an understory for small plants. So you’re stacking the functions of this tree to maximize productivity.

I’ve been applying the same concept to my work to ensure I’m as efficient as possible. For example, if I’m asked to deliver a speech to staff members at a town hall meeting, I do everything necessary to prepare. I brainstorm about the message, create the slides, and draft my talking notes. But that one project also creates a stacking opportunity: What elements of that speech can I use in another lecture, discussion, or article?

Now, stacking functions is different than multitasking. When we stack tasks, we’re applying elements from what we’ve already completed so that we can use the information to build something else. We’re not doing many things at once. We ‘re still focusing our energy on doing one thing at a time. We are, however, doing work that we can leverage or springboard into future projects.

Method two: Reframing challenges as opportunities

One design thinking methodology that helps me remain productive is the concept of framing and reframing. Applying this concept requires an ability to frame and reframe a challenge and look at it from various angles. As my professional life requires me to balance a variety of duties, I try to reframe anything that sounds like it might be a challenge—or an onerous assignment—as an opportunity.

For example, someone might ask me to chair a committee. I can look at it as another task on my plate, or I can choose to see it as an exciting opportunity. Instead of viewing it as a task I’ll dread, I reframe chairing the committee as an opportunity to hear new perspectives, meet new people, and make a positive contribution to the institution.

Framing a challenge as an opportunity also helps me make the most of my time. Have you ever noticed how we all can spend an excessive amount of time talking about how we don’t want to do something? We procrastinate, complain, and occasionally whine. But if we’d framed that task as an opportunity and started working, we could have already accomplished that task in the time we wasted procrastinating. Seeing a challenge as an opportunity is key to helping me be as productive as possible.

I get it—when you’re stressed, it’s hard to be productive, efficient, or creative. You get stuck responding to whatever life throws your way. But if you can put a few productivity practices in place, you can catch and prioritize new tasks or responsibilities before you act on them. Start by asking yourself how you can see a challenge as an opportunity, and then ask yourself how you can apply value from one task to another. When you change your perspective, you’ll not only feel more productive and efficient. You’ll also gain a more profound sense of balance, progress, and accomplishment in both your work and personal life.


Sarah A. Soule is the Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior and senior associate dean for academic affairs at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where she focuses on organizational theory, social movements, and political sociology.

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